“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”
– Dr. Seuss
I had a difficult time letting go of 2016. In all the years of my life I do not recall one that contained so many life changing circumstances as the past year. One would think I couldn’t wait to close, make that slam, the door on the year that brought emotional upheaval, sickness, strife, and death to my life but instead I found myself wanting to hold on to the year that was as the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve. In every aspect, 2016 was a year that will shape the narrative of my life for some time to come.
The stories we tell others of the most extraordinary events – good and bad – that we have experienced in our lives and that help us make sense of the world and shape us as individuals are what Northwestern University professor Dan McAdams, a pioneer in the field of narrative psychology, calls our narrative identity. We tell these stories to give our lives meaning and help others understand us. While many people may experience a similar event in their lives, each person interprets the event differently and assigns different levels of importance to it. Some people will simply move on from an experience like a swimming lesson gone awry, while others are transformed by it, perhaps emboldened to face their fears throughout life or traumatized by the experience they viewed as a broken trust. McAdams calls these “narrative choices” and they predominantly fall into four thematic categories: redemption (stories that transition from the bad to the good that follows), contamination (stories that transition from the good to the bad), communion (stories that emphasize connection, love, friendship, intimacy, caring, or belonging), and agency (stories that emphasize achievement, self-mastery, empowerment, status, and influence).
McAdams’ studies have shown that those whose narratives fall into the redemption, communion, or agency themes have a better outlook on life, find more meaning and purpose in their life, achieve more of their goals, seek out and find more connection, enjoy deeper relationships, and generally report a greater sense of well-being. People who tell their stories through a contamination lens tend to see themselves as victimized, less-than, and fail to thrive in their personal and professional pursuits.
How we interpret our experiences, how we tell our stories, will set the tone and direction of our journeys in the year and years to come.
I tell my story through a lens of overcoming and persevering through events which brought me to a closer walk with God. By overcoming a near fatal eating disorder in my twenties – the ramifications of which altered the trajectory of my life including my schooling, my career, and my relationships – I gained an inner strength and appreciation for life itself that I would not have otherwise acquired. I truly was born again into a life with Christ when I came out of ICU and gave my life completely into His hands and the hands of others He worked through to make me well again. I have lived every day since, cognizant of His divine mercy and grace in my life.
While 2016 had its fine share of wretchedness that at times drove me to places of darkness and sorrow, it was also a year of great personal growth and new direction in my life. My mother’s death changed who I am in this world going forward. I no longer have my mother to stand by me and as odd as it may sound, at 45 years of age I no longer feel like a child. Rather, I am determined to be the woman she never imagined I could be with a strength that I know she quietly and not so quietly instilled in me throughout our tumultuous yet loving mother-daughter relationship.
My father’s car accident and battle with cancer which began shortly after my mother’s death reminded my entire family that we cannot do this life thing on our own. We were richly rewarded through the goodness of friends and family surrounding us with acts of love and prayers. Through it all, my Lord was there, walking with us, carrying us, and working through His angels here on earth – and there were many- ensuring that this battle was fought with faith and determination and through His great providence, we won!
In 2016 I was reminded that I am not invincible and God knew just how to do that. The mountains that once gave me so much exuberance and fed my conquering spirit would put me in my place and lead me towards a new respect – that for myself and my own well-being. Mind you, the mountains are really not the place to discover your weaknesses – at least not your physical ones. The events of the year had been quietly taking a toll on me, leading me to crash and burn on a mountainside for the first time in my epic climbing life (writer’s opinion inserted there). It was the first of many signs that I had been neglecting my own health but I ignored them and pushed through the symptoms of exhaustion, collapsing spells, and stomach issues chalking them up to stress.
When fear started to overwhelm everything else in my life, I headed to the clinic one morning for a check-up and ended the day being thought of as a bit of a walking miracle as I sat for five hours in the transfusion chair receiving three units of blood. This was a rather unexpected outcome of quick check-up! To put it bluntly, I had no red blood cells and quite frankly, the doctor told me – I should have been dead.
My 2nd brush with death in life reminded me once again that my physical body – God’s temple on earth- needs attention too, and for the first time in too long, I began to take serious responsibility for my own health. To win in life, one must be strong, unwavering, and humble – we must know our weaknesses to overcome them and I found mine. Now I am in a process of restoring my health and I am making good progress! Which is a good thing because I have embarked on a new direction in life that had been far too long in the planning stages. My mother’s death and father’s illness made me very much aware that life is to be lived – not just observed or reflected upon. My goals of becoming a Lay Pastoral Associate and becoming a voice of hope in others’ lives will be realized.
While it is easy to succumb to a woe-is-me-what have-I-done-to-deserve-this-attitude when life goes awry, (which is a perfectly natural response) I choose to see my experiences as stepping stones rather than hurdles and tell a redemptive story of new goals, new opportunities, and strengthened relationships, rather than a story of my life going from good to bad which would ultimately lead to a life suspended. By choosing to see the events of my life through a lens of redemption and communion I am choosing to embrace the challenges I have faced and use them for good.
I used to look to the mountains for my escape. They were a place I could go to get away from the chaos of life, challenge myself and come out on top (literally and figuratively), talk to God, and find peace. But my mountain sanctuaries did not avail themselves to me as much last year as in the recent past, partially due to the incessant rainy weather, partially due to my health, but mostly because God determined the chaos of life needed to be lived not escaped from, my challenges would come from within not from a wanderlust adventure, and I would come to find my peace in Him at all times – not just when the mountains called me.
2016 changed me. I am stronger now, in WHO I am. I am humbler. I am more aware. I am more alive! I don’t need to run from life or the circumstances I encounter any longer. When I turn to my Lord instead of running away, I have the strength to find the good in the moment – even when it seems this moment is all I can see. When I call on Him to shine His light in my life, I can be a light in the lives of others. When I am weak, when I have lost heart, He picks me up and restores my spirit.
I don’t need to prove myself on a mountain or be anyone other than the me God created. In fact, as I gaze out at the mountains from my valley home now, the anxious desire I once felt to constantly climb and conquer every trail and peak I could sanely ponder has quelled to a more restful yearning filled with an appreciation of the beauty, opportunity, and peace that awaits me.
What is your story of life and 2016? How will you tell it and how will it define your goals and direction for 2017 and the years to come?
This is what the Lord says— he who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”
~ from Isaiah 43